Stress and the Skin Barrier – How A Job Demolished My Face in Weeks

Stress and the Skin Barrier

As the body’s largest organ, your skin has a lot of work to do. 24 hours a day it’s protecting you by keeping the bad out and the good in. Its outermost layer, the stratum corneum, consists of skin cells bound by lipids made from cholesterol, fatty acids, and ceramides. This barrier is essential for healthy skin to function properly.

There are lots of factors that can potentially disrupt the protective barrier: Harsh skincare products and over-washing, allergens, pollutants, changes in environmental humidity, and STRESS.

Several years ago, when I was 27, I accepted a new job offer. It wasn’t a job I was particularly excited about, but I was offered a decent salary and on a temporary basis it really didn’t sound too bad. I would be the Executive Assistant to the CEO at a company that I will keep anonymous.

I very quickly realized that I had made a mistake. My days began at 5:00 AM. My commute was nearly 2 hours each way with horrendous traffic. The company’s entire staff had extremely low morale, and the employee turnover rate was comically high. My boss was absolutely dreadful – cold, callous, and extremely difficult. The work itself was somehow both mind numbing and incredibly stress inducing.

The drives home were filled with tears of frustration. By the time I would call it a day at 8:00 or 9:00 PM I was too stressed to eat, too wound up to relax, and completely unable to fall asleep. All attempts of refueling and recharging were a lost cause.

It didn’t take long – After 3 or 4 weeks I began noticing some physical changes, first and foremost in my skin. It was incredibly irritated and in pain. It hurt to move my face. The air felt as though it was stinging it. My acne, which I’d always been able to keep under control with standard topicals, began to really flare.

I went to a dermatologist. Then another, and another. They only wanted to prescribe me harsh topicals, which my very sensitized skin was in no shape to handle. I had done my own research at this point and tried discussing the skin barrier with them. They did not want to address it.

Skipping over the eventual painful job exit (which included a difficult resignation and saying uncomfortable goodbyes with a face covered in white patches of prescription meds), I knew in my gut that spending my days this way couldn’t be good for my health if it was taking such a dramatic toll on my skin.

So, what does the science say? You can check out how it all works here, but in summary, through multiple pathways in the body, stress of both a psychological and physical nature disrupts the function of the skin barrier. Transepidermal water loss keeps it from maintaining adequate hydration levels, and it also becomes more permeable which lets unwanted irritants in. While for me it made my acne flare, these changes can also result in other skin conditions such as Atopic Dermatitis and Psoriasis.

If you feel like your skin barrier might be compromised, try taking the following steps to restore balance. It can take time, weeks or months, so patience is a must.

-Reduce major stressors where you can

-Give your skin a break from harsh topical products

-Hydrate inside and out

-Prioritize sleep and good nutrition

Your skin truly is an indicator of internal issues. I was frustrated with my skin for inconveniencing me, but it was trying to tell me something. I found it incredible that such a short experience could impact me physically in this way. Listen to your body. It’s trying to keep you from spending your days in misery. 🙂

Why I’m Not Currently Vegan

Why I'm Not Currently Vegan

Our bodies are constantly evolving. What works for us at any one stage of our lives does not determine what will be best down the line. I say this because I’d like to think that maybe one day I’ll be able to go vegan for the environment and for the treatment of animals.

I will note that most days, I do in fact eat 80-90% vegan. Over the years, I have made the attempt to go full vegan time and time again. Yet, at age 29, these are my 4 biggest reasons that a vegan diet has never worked for me:

My Hormones

There are countless people out there who swear by cutting out animal products to correct their hormone imbalances. Unfortunately, every time I have gone vegan my hormones become incredibly unhappy. I get cystic pimples (minor example below), my insulin and cortisol go a little nutty, and when I got a blood test done, my testosterone levels were off the charts too high. Reintroducing animal products corrected these issues almost instantly.

Why I'm Not Currently Vegan 3

My Digestive System

Again, there are many vegans out there who swear by their diet as a cure-all for digestive issues. However, when I adapted a vegan diet, the bloating, cramping, and flare-ups of IBS were out of control. I felt absolutely miserable every day. Reintroducing animal products brought back my normal problem-free digestion.

My Supplement Intolerances

When you go vegan, there are a number of supplements that are recommended, including B12 which can only be found in animal foods, and oftentimes other vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin D and Calcium (depending on your specific deficiencies or diet shortcomings). Unfortunately, my body is very sensitive when it comes to supplements. Believe me, I have tried them ALL, even the most straightforward options with minimal ingredients. They always lead to either severe nausea/stomach cramps or overpoweringly intense headaches. Therefore, I need to rely on getting my vitamins from my food sources alone.

Food Allergies & Sensitivities

Allergies

I have had a large number of food allergies since I was born. Many of these foods are unfortunately big vegan staples. A couple of main examples are:
-Soy
-Tree Nuts (Almonds, Cashews, Pecans, Walnuts, Pine Nuts, Etc.)

Sensitivities

There are many other vegan foods that I am sensitive to, such as several seeds and various types of produce. One example:
-Flax seeds (they negatively aggravate my hormones due to the high content of phytoestrogens)

Therefore, if I am in a position where the only options are packaged or takeout vegan food, 9 times out of 10 it includes one of those ingredients (allergens being the most problematic of course).

I’ll admit, I often feel very guilty that I am not a vegan. With the environment in need of all of our assistance and the inhumane ways that so many animals are treated, I have tried to do my part in this way. Needless to say I try my best to only purchase the most humane animal products such as eggs from the pasture, etc., though I know it is still not ideal.

However, I do feel that if my own health is suffering, it just doesn’t make sense to deliberately sabotage myself. I wish I could eat vegan. I do. To me, my diet experiments further the evidence that every human body is incredibly different. Only you know what works for you, and I urge you to follow your own health journey outside of the influence of what diets are trendy right now.

I think it’s wonderful that veganism works for so many, because it can have great impacts on this planet and for certain people’s health journeys. I know that there are many vegans who follow me, and to all of you I say: well done. I hope you can understand the other side of the coin.

Tetracycline and Fingernail Separation

Tetracycline and Fingernails_2

When you visit a dermatologist for acne, leaving with a prescription for antibiotics is one of the most common outcomes. Of course this is to treat the bacterial aspect of one’s acne, and for many, it works wonders at getting it under control. The trouble is that for many of us, there are some seriously unwanted side effects.

My acne-prone skin is partially genetic. Both of my parents experienced it when they were teenagers, and oily skin seems to run in the family. When I was a kid, my mom used to recount her “fingernail story” whenever I prompted her as I found it absolutely fascinating. She would recall being prescribed Tetracycline as a teenager for her mild acne. Not long after she started taking it, her fingernails completely separated from her fingers.

She said that after looking into it, she thought this might have been due to the fact that she worked as a lifeguard at the time, and was getting regular sun exposure. To confirm her research, there is a phenomenon called Photo-onycholysis, in which sun exposure with Doxycycline or Tetracycline in your system causes nail separation (onycholysis). There seems to be somewhat limited studies on this, but it suggests you would need a pretty hefty amount of sunshine for this to occur (such as a beach vacation).

Fast forward to 20 years later when I was struggling with my own adult acne in my mid-late twenties. As I became frustrated with all of my own attempts to treat it failing, I saw MANY dermatologists. One of them prescribed a classic combo of drugs for both internal and external treatment: topical retinoids, topical antibiotics, and Tetracycline to be taken by mouth once a day.

Needless to say I was apprehensive. The story of my mom’s fingernails falling off had not been forgotten with age. However, between the desperation I felt for clear skin, and knowing that it was a TINY percentage of people who experienced this bizarre side effect, I took the chance.

I bet you can guess what happened next! After taking the Tetracycline for around a week, I began feeling a bit of sensitivity in my fingertips. I thought to myself, “There’s no possible way”. It’s too soon and the chances are too small. I’ll give it a few more days and see if it goes away.

It didn’t. A few days later when I was taking a shower, I noticed serious pain as soon as the water hit my hands. I could feel how far underneath my nails the water was going as it hit the nail beds. I needed no more confirmation that the process of onycholysis was starting.

Luckily, because of my mom’s experience, I knew to be on the lookout for it and could stop taking the medication before it progressed any further. I stopped taking the pills, and while it took a little while for the tips of my nails to grow back out and reattach themselves to the nail beds, no severe damage was done.

What I found interesting is that during this brief period of time, I had no sun exposure at all! I was working from home at the time and I’ll be honest, I almost never got outside other than to pick up groceries. I likely didn’t get more than 5 or 10 minutes outside that week. (Don’t worry, I’m much better about getting out for long walks in the sunshine now to get my daily Vitamin D and fresh air!) Every study that I’ve found suggests that this phenomenon only occurs with the addition of sunlight, but I found this to be a side effect of the drug all by itself.

I wanted to share this experience because at the time I was frustrated that there was so little information on the subject. The moral of the story is to try to be as in tune with your body as possible when you begin taking a new medication. Oftentimes doctors won’t convey all of the possibilities because they might not know themselves, and good old Google doesn’t have all the answers either. If something doesn’t feel right, go with your gut and stop taking it. There is almost always an alternative treatment you can try!

Soy Story

Soy Story_2

You may or may not have noticed that none of my recipes include soy.  It’s an ongoing debate; How does it affect hormones?  The research is mixed, but from my personal experiences, I feel that I can safely say it is incredibly unique to the individual!  

Let me start at the beginning.  Hormones aside, I am actually allergic to soy.  Food allergies have been a big part of my life ever since I was a kid.  The weekly allergy shots at the doctor’s office, emergency trips to the hospital, rashes, hives, you name it.  I have a wide variety of reactions depending on the allergen, but with soy it is severe nausea. I eat tofu and I vomit shortly afterward.

However, the times that I have managed to ingest a slight bit of soy and not vomit, I have absolutely noticed that it affects my hormones.  The giveaway? Cystic acne. There is a very particular type of pimple that is hormonal versus comedonal. You acne sufferers out there know what I’m talking about!  They’re deep, they cannot be popped, and they linger for months on the lower half of your face. 

Soy Story

Now I know what some people are going to say: “That doesn’t happen to me!  Soy doesn’t affect my hormones!”. If that’s true, then great! I’m jealous.  The truth is, from both the studies I’ve read alongside personal discussions, some people get along with soy and others don’t.

Like many foods, it comes down to your particular genetic makeup, your existing hormone levels, your pre-existing conditions, and your food intolerances.  One of my biggest mottos when it comes to eating “healthy” is eating what is right for you and you alone. Just because your favorite food blogger cooks with soy (or sub in any food here), that doesn’t mean you have to.  Eat what works with your body chemistry.  The only way to know is through your own trial and error.  If a food has a negative effect on you, you can’t feel pressured to follow the current wellness trends.  Your health is too important.

Caffeine and Acne

Why I Don’t Drink Coffee

Caffeine & Acne_3

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the taste of coffee.  I started drinking it at age 14 and couldn’t let go until I was in my mid-twenties.  However, the older I got, and the more hormonal issues I began to deal with, the more it became overwhelmingly apparent that caffeine was hugely triggering my acne.

Why I Don't Drink Caffeine

If you’re acne-prone like me, you likely get both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne.  Caffeine usually causes the inflammatory type, which for me displays as the cystic pimples which appear around my mouth, jawline, and lower half of my face.  They take weeks to subside, and often leave a red mark that doesn’t fade for months!  Those of us with pale skin scar very easily, and I happened to get the skin of my Irish relatives, not the Italian side of the family!

Caffeine is a major trigger for cortisol, our stress hormone.  It is what surges during that fight or flight response deeply built into us as humans.  Stress can be a significant acne trigger.  Most people think of stress as pressure at our jobs, a difficult relationship situation, or studying for a big exam.  However that cup of joe can cause the body an equal amount of stress in sensitive individuals.

I do recognize that there are different degrees of caffeine sensitivity.  If I drink one cup of coffee, I feel the unpleasant jitters almost instantly!  My family is the exact same way.  My husband and his family, on the other hand, could all drink a gallon of coffee at midnight and fall peacefully asleep within minutes.  So it seems plausible that you’re more likely to have the acne-caffeine connection if you are sensitive to the stimulating drug in general!

The solution?  Try cutting it out!  You have nothing to lose if you are struggling with your skin.  Yes, you will get the withdrawal headaches for a few days, but you can try weaning off it slowly to ease these.  Even replacing your daily coffee with a beverage containing less caffeine is a great start.  I saw dramatic results from switching my coffee to black tea for a few years.  It has about half the caffeine.

Another source of caffeine, as painful as it may be, is chocolate (particularly dark chocolate).  Granted, it contains very small amounts.  100 grams of dark chocolate has 43mg of caffeine, which is even lower than the amount in most black teas.  However for some of us, it’s still too much.  The last time I used a minuscule 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder in a recipe, I broke out terribly.  It’s really difficult as someone who is a serious chocolate girl.  Chocolate was my go-to flavor for any dessert growing up.  If you can snag some carob powder to sub into your recipes, it really helps with the craving.

So give it a try!  You can make it less difficult by stocking up on some really tasty herbal or decaffeinated teas so that you don’t have to give up any of your rituals.  An extra perk: You won’t have to rely on coffee for your energy source anymore.  You’ll be fueled by an intake of nutritious foods and better sleep 🙂